Changing habits

If you place electrodes in a rat’s brain and put him in an unfamiliar maze with a piece of chocolate hidden at the end of a path, you see an amazing thing about how habits affect your brain. I’ve personally never tried this, but Charles Duhigg talks about it in detail in his AWESOME book The Power of Habit.

But back to the rat. The first time he’s in the maze, he wanders through, sniffing the walls and working his way down the path. When he finds the chocolate he happily settles in for a quick snack. All this time, his brain activity is high. He’s learning something and his brain wants to capture every minute.

The next time he’s in the maze, he still wanders, but now the maze is more familiar and he knows there’s chocolate. His brain is still very active, and this time he’s much quicker to get to the prize.

The third time he’s in the maze, he knows what he’s doing and goes right to the chocolate. And here’s the amazing thing about habits and brains: on this trip, his brain is active at the start and at the finish, but in between it has the same level of activity as it does when he’s sleeping!

How does this apply to you? Think back to when you had to learn something new – like the first time you got behind the wheel to drive a car. How hard was that! There was so much to remember, especially if you were trying to drive a shift car. Your brain slowed down as you thought through each step. Then you practiced and thought a little less. Pretty soon, you jumped into a car and drove off without much thought. And now, aren’t there times when you don’t remember how you got somewhere because the skills and the habits were automatic?

The same goes when you’re traveling somewhere for the first time. Ever notice that it seems to take twice as long to get somewhere new as it does to get home?

Most of our days are made up of a series of habits that we don’t even think about. Your brain’s ability to conserve energy in this way makes habits incredibly strong. This is great if you have good habits. But when you have a habit you want to break, you have to start a new pattern that overrides the previous one, and then practice until your brain accepts the new routine. And when you want to start a new habit, it takes concentration and practice.

Here are three steps to change a habit

(1) Decide on one habit you want to change.

(2) Track that habit for seven days to figure out:

  • A: What you’re doing just before you start into the “habit loop”
  • B: What the habit looks like in detail, and
  • C: What the consequences are of that habit

(3) Take a second week to track the habit, and this time when you start into A, the “habit loop”, try a new behavior. And pay attention to what the consequences are of the new behavior.

I track habit changes in a planner, but jotting notes on a piece of paper or tracking digitally also works. The goal is to pay attention to yourself, to examine your habit in great detail, and to find patterns. In this experiment, you’re both the rat and the scientist 🙂

The cool think about tracking is that you turn habits into numbers which somehow depersonalizes them. It also gives you more detail than you’re probably aware of. Author Stephen King, in his book On Writing, said he didn’t know he had a drinking problem until Maine started a recycling program for bottle and cans. Then he saw how many Miller Lite cans were bagged up in his garage. He was amazed, but seeing the numbers started him on the road to recovery.

Example of breaking a tough habit

If you want to break a troublesome habit, like smoking, or drinking too much, or biting your nails, in Week #1, you’re looking for cues.

Let’s say the habit you want to break is drinking too much. What are the cues that lead you to take that first drink? It’s most likely not because you’re thirsty. And it’s probably not because you like the feeling when you drink too much. Is it because you’re shy? Do you drink at a party so you’re more comfortable talking? Do you drink when you’re out to be social? To be more fun in a crowd? Or is it because you define yourself as party-person?

You’ve got to be honest with yourself when it comes to habits. What’s at the heart of the cue that starts you into this habit loop?

In Week #2, when the cue arises that says, “Time for a drink,” choose a new behavior. If you’re drinking because being in a crowd stresses you out, choose an activity that is less stressful, like going out with just a few friends. Or ask your friends to come over to play games rather than go to a bar. Or choose a movie over a night on the town. You’re going to go to a big party again down the road, but for this week, give yourself the best chance possible to make the change stick. Change the circumstances, and see how that changes your behavior.

Track your new alternatives in Week #2 along with the consequence of not drinking. Celebrate the feeling of control, and of changing a behavior that’s been bugging you. Remember that habits take time and practice to change. If you have a couple of troublesome habits, choose the simplest one to start with where you have the best chance of success.

Example of starting a new habit

If you want to start a new habit, like drinking more water, exercising, or meditating, in Week #1, you want to think about something you already do by habit and link the new habit you want to form to a cue from an old habit.

Let’s say you want to drink more water. You probably eat a few times a day – that’s a habit. So now, every time you grab a bite to eat, drink a glass of water first. Or fill up your glass every time you go to the bathroom. Track the number of glasses of water you drink every day. And track how it makes you feel as the consequence.

If you’re trying to develop an exercise habit, find a gym that’s near your house or on your way to work, and stop by to see if you like the atmosphere. Is a workout here something you can plan in as part of your daily, habit routine? Or can you get up a little earlier each morning, and right after you brush your teeth, which is probably a habit, put on your running shoes and head outside for a walk? Track that, and how you feel.

Or say you want to start meditating. Try staying in bed for ten minutes after you wake up to just be aware of the day. Being quiet for ten minutes is a great way to start a meditation practice. Or stay in the shower for an extra few minutes feeling the water and being reflective. Or wait quietly as your coffee brews – listening to the sound, watching the drip, and smelling the deliciousness. There are lots of on-line meditation prompts that are also interesting. My favorite meditation coach is Sharon Salzberg. She’s doing a meditation challenge in February with free daily prompts. Here’s the link if you’re interested. If you’re in the habit of checking email every morning, click on this email first and start your day with meditation.

Bottom line: Habits can change with practice

Breaking an old habit or beginning a new one is a great way to start the new year on your own terms. It’s fun to be a scientist about your life. It feels good to make decisions. And it’s awesome to bring about change.

We headed back to the Museum of Fine Arts today. Here are a few fun, inspiration pix!

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